The Productivity Monster Bestiary

Getting things done is important. It’s one of the things which gets us closer to accomplishing our dreams– whether that’s writing a book, designing a game, or launching a business.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of patterns and distractions and meaningless tasks which make it awful hard to do things. We either find ourselves too busy to do what we want, or the time magically evaporates.

Maybe it’s a conspiracy. Maybe it’s a set of web design principles engineered to exploit the seven deadly sins.1 Maybe it’s Maybeline.

Perhaps the best theory can be found in Norman Jester’s seminal work, The Phantom Tollbooth, where he anthropomorphizes these time-wasters as fiends which will do anything to prevent the protagonist from freeing the princesses Rhyme and Reason.

Fortunately for you, we’ve recently recovered key portions of The Bestiary of Time-Wasting Monsters by Brother Druce the Fictitious. Reproduced for the first time, these writings shed light on the productivity monsters which beset us at every step.

Take Slothlings to Task

The Slothling is a devilishly clever creature known for its fondness of spare time and marmalade … locals often believe them to assume the form of cat portraits, but I have discovered [that] the more devious amongst them have learned to slip past even the most vigilant by wearing the guise of a menial task- laziness disguised as work itself!

~ Brother Druce

Have you ever had a moment at work where you looked up and asked “Why the heck am I doing this?” That bazillion line spreadsheet inventorying your company’s mini-services seemed really important, but was it? Or have you ever had an important thing which had to get done, but it was preceded by a thousand tiny-but-perhaps-less-important tasks?

When we hear the word Sloth we tend to think of a creature which moves so little that it grows moss. The reality is that for a lot of us sloth doesn’t just take the form of doing nothing, but in procrastinating through less meaningful tasks.

Modern-day Slothlings have evolved to take the form of spreadsheets, or legions of small text files which need minor updates to their titles. They then insert themselves before a task of True Meaning and soak up all of your free time, often without you even realizing it!

Fortunately, there are some tools that we can use to fend off Sloth, and they’re really easy to use!

Unleash the Power of the List

The first step towards exorcising a Slothling is to bring it into the light, and the way we do that is by surrounding it with a List. Take a few minutes to list out the things you plan to get done today. I mean everything– including the small things (reply to Fred’s email, send that report to the Pointy-Haired one, etc.). If a new task ambushes you throughout the day, add it as a new task.

This can be done with notepad (physically or digitally), but I recommend using Todoist (and no, they’re not paying me)- it’s clean and efficient and has support for helpful functions like recurring tasks. It also allows you to take your tasks a step further by organizing them by project and subproject (again using a very clean and uncluttered interface).

Next, place this list in a place that is easy to access, and check off each task as you complete it. The beauty of this is that it takes that little compulsion to check off boxes (a voice exploited by Sloth all too often) and uses it to combat Sloth instead.

Be warned- one of the most devious tricks in the Slothling book is to make you blow an afternoon looking up productivity tools and techniques (they could be using this very post! D:). Make sure that you don’t waste time on elaborate listing systems. Just get in the habit of using a simple list, and then optimize it once you’ve got the process down.

Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize!

One of my daily recurring tasks is to prioritize that day’s activities. Knowing how to prioritize is essential in warding off Slothlings. This is the step where you decide which tasks are worthy of being done now, which are worthy of being done later, and which ones that probably aren’t ever worth doing.

The simplest form of prioritization is to order the items on your list linearly- most important on top, least important on the bottom. Let me emphasize- every item must have a good reason for being above the item below it. If you have to insert another task in there later, that’s fine, but recognize (and make the person giving you that task recognize) that in doing so some other task is probably going to get bumped out onto the “Tomorrow List” (which you will re-prioritize).

Next, guesstimate the amount of time it will take to do each item on your list. Now go down the list and add up the amount of time it will take to do them all- once you hit 8 hours (or however much time you have in the day to work), move the remaining tasks to the next day. If you find that there is a task you keep putting off, maybe it’s not important enough to do at all?

Using a technique from Stephen R. Covey‘s book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we can take our prioritization to the next level by evaluating our priorities against two axes:

  1. How important is the task? What is it’s ultimate benefit?
  2. How urgent is the task?

Some tasks are urgent (time bound). You have to pay rent on the first of the month, or your boss has said the report must be on his desk by 3:00. We’ll put them on the Y-axis in the picture below.

Other tasks aren’t urgent per se, but they are more important in the long run. Spending 30 minutes practicing French each day may not be urgent, but if you don’t do it you won’t be able to gain the long-term benefits of knowing a second language. We’ll use the X-axis for importance.

Task scatter graph
Ugly, but prettying up the graph was a low-priority task.

Now we can divide our graph into four quadrants like so:

Urgent/Non-Important Urgent/Important
Non-Urgent/Non-Important Non-Urgent/Important

The high priority items will be the ones that are both urgent and important, then ones that are either urgent or important. The tasks that are neither urgent nor important are probably not worth doing at all!

The power of this technique lies in its ability to give you a sense of perspective which will free you from a life run by urgent (but worthless) tasks.

Guard against Minute-Snatching Goblins

I have heard disturbing reports of a Minute Snatcher infestation … these small goblin fiends steal unprotected Tyme [sic] when no one is looking … Brothers Rufus and Dorn have been dispatched with a supply of notebooks and clocks with which to drive them off.

~ Bother Druce

Have you ever blinked and realized that several hours had disappeared? Or have you ever felt that you hadn’t gotten your 24-hours worth of day? You were probably the victim of a Minute-Snatcher.

Time is one of our most valuable possessions. It’s a finite resource that once spent or stolen can never be recovered. Paradoxically it is also one of our least valued possessions- we keep track of our finances, our belongings, our scores, our weights, but not our time. As such when it goes unaccounted for we simply have to write it off as lost.

This is why our days feel so short. If you do the math, we have 24 hours in a day. We spend 8 on sleeping (or putting off sleep), 9 for work, 1 for commuting, and 2 for self care (making meals, showering, etc.). That leaves 4 hours a day (ignoring weekends when you have a significantly greater amount of time available). Four hours is enough time for an amateur blogger to write one of these posts. Yet, this time seems to evaporate.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Account for your time

Similar to dealing with Slothlings, the first step towards dealing with Minute-Snatchers is to figure out which minutes they’re snatching and when. To do this, I use a tool called Toggl (although you can use whatever system you’d like). It’s a little gadget that allows me to set up projects (categories) that I will attribute time to. It gets embedded in my browser and my phone (and Todoist), and whenever I start on a task (like writing this blog) I start the timer.

Invest a few minutes to set this up. I like a digital tool because it’s fast and easy to use (I always have my phone), but you could also keep a pen and notebook- it’s the same principle as a food journal. Then do your best to track how long it took to do each thing you actually did over the course of several days. It won’t be precise or perfect, but it will give you a much better idea of where your time is really going.

The key is to include non-important things as well. If you’re going to play a video game, then record that time. You’ll face some unpleasant truths (I really spend 6 hours sleeping and 4 hours gaming), but they’re important truths. Sometimes the act of recording itself is enough to keep yourself from excess- I know seeing the ticking timer helps me realize I’ve already spent 5 minutes writing an email and prompts me to wrap it up.

Beware the Whining

When cornered, Minute-Snatchers will attempt to grovel and sway their would-be exorcists with suprising eloquence … while I must admit I admire their eloquence, I advise all initiates not be swayed by their oratory.

~ Brother Druce

It’s true that we can’t be productive all the time- we’re not machines. However, Minute-Snatchers will often try to exploit this and take it further- telling us that after a difficult day at work we deserve that Dr. Who Binge or that we have earned a 3-hour gaming session.

In these times, remember the goals and the dreams that you are working towards. If they are worth dreaming of, surely they’re worth more than the temporary pleasure that the goblin is trying to talk you into? Don’t lose sight of what is truly important to you. Doing anything less is robbing the future.

Keep them Guessing

Patterns can be very helpful in optimizing things you have to do repeatedly, but the comfort sprung from routine can be a golden opportunity for Minute-Snatchers. Similar to the transitions between scenes in a movie, our brains tend to shut down and fast forward to the next “interesting” part of life.

When this happens, it is a lot easier to misspend time because your mind is essentially on auto-pilot.

We can combat this by changing things up. Do you normally work from a home office? Try working from a coffee shop. Do you always go to the same coffee shop? Try the other one down the street and mix things up. Keep your mind active and in the moment, and you’ll be better prepared to fend off any Minute-Snatchers.

Drive Away Distraction Demons

The unfortunate Brother Ulf met his end recently at the hand of a legion of Distraction Demons … sadly, they managed to keep him so distracted that he drove his mule off a cliff … fortunately, through meditation and focus we were able to cast them back into the Bottomless Feed.

~ Brother Druce

Lurking in a fully connected world of scrolling news feeds, 24/7 reachability, and push notifications, Distraction Demons are perhaps the greatest threat that your dreams face. It’s difficult to go 15 minutes without running into distractions that waste valuable time.

Some distractions are obvious and we already know about them- stalking people on Facebook (already a somewhat disturbing behavior), viewing cat pictures, or “curating” content on Reddit all suck up a lot of time. It also comes up at work in the forms of emails and instant messaging- I can’t count the times when I went to my inbox to find a particular attachment I needed to solve the task I was working on, then woke up naked in a field with an organized inbox.

Distractions are particularly deadly because they don’t just steal the time it takes to gaze at 50 cat pictures or read that news article- they also take the time that is then required to re-orient oneself back to the task you were originally trying to complete.

If this wasn’t bad enough, we technologists are particularly vulnerable to a more mature and pernicious breed of these monsters:

Say you want to learn Angular2. You clone the repository and start reading through the tutorial, and then you realize that the sample code comes with a unit testing framework you aren’t familiar with. So then you go and start to research Jasmine, and you realize that you should probably automate your tests and tie them into something called “Continuous Deployment / Continuous Integration”, so you Google “DevOps” and spend a few hours reading articles on best practices.

So how do we beat the distractions?

Filter them from Orbit!

The best way to deal with distractions by far is to eliminate them. Turn off your email client and only check it at set times each day. Set “office hours” where you leave your instant messenger on. Mute your cellphone. Wear big headphones when you need to focus so that people know not to bother you. Cut off distractions at the source!

Unfortunately, not all workplaces permit this kind of discipline- some supervisors want to be able to reach you by text at any time during (or after) working hours; others expect you to respond to email within minutes. This is unfortunate, but there are several ways you can deal with this:

Show them the money by tracking the time wasted by distractions (using Toggl or something similar as discussed earlier) and then convert that time to money. Many workplaces have a known hourly rate that your time is worth (not just the amount they pay you, but the other costs you don’t see such as taxes, office space, admin services, software licenses, etc.). The rule of thumb is that it’s twice what they pay you, but I’ve found it’s often even higher.

Regardless, you can use this to convert time to money in a very meaningful way- if the hourly rate is $50 (and it’s likely more like $80), a 15 minute IM session cost the company $12. A 1 hour staff meeting for a team of 10 cost the company $500. You can use this to create a compelling business case.

Compromise and ask your boss if you can trial the Pomodoro Technique. In its simplest form this technique consists of alternating between 25 minute blocks of focused uninterrupted work and 5 minute blocks of downtime (which you can use to answer emails).

There are a plethora of tools which already support this (the Toggl browser plugin being one of them- I’m using it now to write this). If it ends up impairing the business, you can always go back, but if it works it paves the way towards greater things.

Prioritize your filtering. My workplace uses a lot of email, so one technique I use is breaking my inbox into three folders- one is for my leadership, one for emails sent to me, and one for anything I am CC’d on. Outlook rules automatically sort my mail into these three folders, and I’m able to immediately respond to my boss whilst only looking at CC’d emails if I have time.

Admittedly, I was afraid at first that doing this would cause me to miss important emails, but I’ve been doing it for nearly a year and have yet to find an issue. You could easily extend this to prioritize important clients or other user groups which really need an immediate response.

Turn Distractions into Task Opportunities

What if the distractions are “good things”?

In addition to keeping a list of things I want to get done in any given day, I also keep a list of things I want to learn. New testing framework? Make researching it a task. Interesting article? Reading it is a task. New productivity tool? Same thing.

This technique is really powerful because you are delaying gratification and in doing so often find that when you do get to your “learning” tasks that they aren’t that important after all. You can prioritize them, give them their own place in your schedule, or even delete them outright. But now you are in control- you are neither a slave to click-bait nor forgetting things which are genuinely interesting.

In Closing

Productivity Monsters are all around us, but through the teachings of Brother Druce we’ve learned:

  • Tasks help us track what needs to be done and make sure the important stuff takes priority.
  • Time Tracking helps us see where our time really goes and spot hidden time-wasters.
  • Filters help us eliminate a lot of useless tasks before they even start.

It’s important to remember though that at the end of the day it isn’t really about being productive- even Slothlings do that. Being productive is just the means to an end- be it writing that novel, or building that business, or even coding that video game. These tips will help you reach your dreams, but don’t let their practice get in the way of the dreams themselves.

Let us know about tricks you use to fight off productivity monsters or how these tricks have helped you achieve your own dreams in the comments section below!

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  1. Chris Nodder has a brilliant book on the subject which I highly recommend.